Sunday 16th October 2016
21st Sunday of Trinity
2 Tim 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Heavenly Father, as we come into your presence this morning in word, prayer and sacrament transform our hearts and minds to be the disciples you have called and made us to be. Amen.
Pester power. Anyone with children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews will probably be familiar with the concept of pester power.
“Dad, can I have one of those please?”
And at first you are strong:
“No, its got too much sugar” or “Its too expensive” or “What on earth do you want that for?”
And sometimes that works. But sometimes the power of the pester is too strong:
“Dad, I really need, want, must have one of those.”
And if they have sufficient persistence the little loves can wear you down and then, for the sake of a respite, you give them what they want. Within reason, and we’ll come back to that.
That pester power is exactly what Jesus is illustrating in today’s Gospel reading.
Today Jesus tells us a parable of a widow seeking justice. We don’t know against whom or why she was seeking justice, simply that this was an aggrieved woman who needed to go to law.
But there was a problem. The legal system itself didn’t care a jot about her. We are told that the judge cared neither for God nor what people thought of him. This was a man without conscience who would probably only stir himself if the price was right. The system was corrupt to its core and the woman’s chances of getting justice looked pretty slim.
But she was obviously a formidable character. She had persistence and she had pester power. We are told that although the judge refused to help for some time that she kept coming back until, eventually, she wore him down and he decided to give her what she wanted for the sake of getting back to a quiet life.
What was Jesus seeking to tell his followers, and us, through this parable?
Quite simply that we are to be persistent in our prayer life, taking all our cares and concerns to God, including our pleas for justice in an unjust world. And, that if we are persistent in prayer, that God will respond.
Now parables are not the same thing as metaphors or similes. Jesus is not saying that God is like an uncaring judge who only listens to pray in order to get us off his back. On the contrary we are told that God will grant justice quickly, unlike the judge who took some time, and very much unlike the judge, God actually wants us to take our concerns and cares to him.
God is a father who wants to be in relationship with his children and prayer is central to that relationship. God wants us to pester him with prayer not because he doesn’t care about us but precisely because he cares about us.
So how is your prayer life at the moment? How persistent are you in taking your cares and concerns to him? Do you pester him either with the dogged determination of the woman in the parable or with the childlike faith of the child who believes that if they ask just one more time they will get what they are after?
However, there in an important grown-up lesson here. Although I believe that God always answers our prayers the answer is not always a ‘yes’ to our desires. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is ‘no’ and remains ‘no’ despite our pestering. Now that may be hard to hear but God actually knows what is best for us better than we do ourselves. If Henry pestered me for heroin or for unrestricted access to the internet then my answer would be no, no matter how persistent he was.
I always come back to the prayer of St John Chrysostom which appears at the end of evening prayer:
“Fulfill now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them.”
God answers our prayers as is most expedient for us – and that is judged not by us but by him. And we often think that we know better than God and we are very good at giving thanks for his ‘yeses’ whilst railing against the ‘noes’. But perhaps those are the most important answers because when God says no to what we think we want perhaps that is a clue that we need to delve deeper so that we can perceive God at work beyond ourselves.
And if we are being called today to be more persistent in our prayer life then the reading from Timothy also calls us to be more persistent in the attention we give to scripture and to the roots of our faith.
There is a constant temptation to make our faith, and to make the way in which we proclaim our faith through preaching and worship, into mere entertainment. Some of you may say that you have been coming here for years and have never been entertained!
But one sees everywhere the constant desire for novelty and gimmicks and the fear amongst many that unless everything is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and all the difficult bits ignored that our faith will disappear.
However this is not a modern phenomenon. Paul is warning his protégé Timothy very clearly that people will turn away from sound doctrine and will gather around themselves teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
I had a conversation with a non-conformist Christian who asked me whether Church of England congregations are allowed to sack their vicar. I don’t think he was actually having a pop at me, it was just a general question. I think.
And I told him that, unfortunately, that is not how the Church of England or indeed how any episcopally-led church works. And whilst that may have draw backs for some the great advantage is that the Vicar is not obliged just to tickle the itching ears of the congregation with whatever they want to hear that week but actually has the freedom to challenge and to provoke people out of their comfort zones and, hopefully, back to the deeper truths of our faith.
So we are reminded not simply to make this stuff up as we go along in order to entertain the crowds or to tell people what they feel most comfortable with hearing. Rather Paul refers Timothy and us back to the bible reminding us that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching. Now that absolutely does not mean that God dictated the bible to human agents who simply wrote down what God said and that everything is therefore literal and the bible is no more than a book of rules to follow. That approach I believe does violence both to God’s intention and to the importance of human agency in both writing the words of scripture – those people were as fully human as us and were writing down the story of God’s interaction with his people as they perceived it – and the importance of our humanity as we receive and interpret those writings. Nonetheless God is present at both ends of that process and we need to place real value on the place of scripture in our lives, our worship and our discipleship.
As many of you know when I first felt called to be a Christian it was very much a desire both the receive the sacraments of the church and to read the bible and I have always felt that both are equally important.
So, having asked you how your prayer life is at the moment I now ask how often do you engage with the bible? Do you only hear it in church or do you read it at home? Did you know that you can read through the whole bible in about 20 minutes a day over the course of a year?
So I would urge you to today to take seriously both your prayer life and your engagement with scripture. One needs not only to persist with both but sometimes to wrestle with God in order to get to the place where he wants you to be. We didn’t have the Genesis reading today but have a look at the story from Genesis 32 verse 22 onwards. It is the mysterious story of Jacob literally wrestling with God and refusing to let him go until God blesses him and God changes his name from Jacob to Israel because he fought so hard for that blessing – and ended up limping home because he put his hip out. Jacob was as persistent in his fight for God’s blessing as was the widow in her petitions to the judge and as Timothy would have to be in holding fast to the truth of the scriptures.
Sisters and brothers in Christ – today we are called to persistence. Persistence in prayer, persistence in our reading of the bible, persistence in our wrestling for a blessing and, most of all, persistence in our faith, which is the faith of Christ crucified and raised again for us. Alleuia,